Farmer's shuck tactics for the perfect wine

Mini-saga: Steve Feletti and Katrina Hodgkinson at his farm in Cowra.
Mini-saga: Steve Feletti and Katrina Hodgkinson at his farm in Cowra. 

I first encountered picpoul de pinet when working at Domaine de la Baume in the Languedoc in 1993. Domaine's manager, Bill Hardy, was a fan and poured this local dry white with freshly shucked oysters or barbecued mussels. In a region noted for full-bodied Mediterranean-style reds, delicate white wines were at a premium, and the crisp, relatively neutral picpoul was a no-brainer to go with any seafood. The appellation for this wine stretches between the Mediterranean at the Bassin de Thau and Pezenas, an ancient town near the winery, just outside Beziers. La Baume was owned by Hardy's at the time.

Picpoul de pinet is not one of France's most characterful wines, but like many crisp, high-acid, low-fruit whites it goes well with food. While fruitier wines tend to dominate food, this kind of wine allows food to be the hero.

Fast forward 20 years and Batemans Bay oyster grower Steve Feletti, of the Moonlight Flat Oyster Company, has just planted on his farm at Cowra what he thinks are Australia's first piquepoul blanc vines (piquepoul blanc is the correct name of the vine, picpoul de pinet is the French appellation).

Feletti fell in love with picpoul de pinet in 2008 on one of his visits to France. He found the vines growing in sight of the Languedoc oyster leases, and discovered there's no better wine to drink with the molluscs.

''It's a perfect sensory match,'' he says.

This is due to the lightness of the wine and its piercing acidity, which cuts through the fattiness of a plump oyster.

''Getting the vines was a very personal journey, and getting them into our farm soil was a bit like - I imagine - having a baby,'' Feletti says. ''I identified who I needed to approach in the Pinet district. The gentleman's name is Guy Bascou, president of the picpoul association. A very good French-Australian professor friend offered to phone and ask him to at least agree to meet me.

''So, I found myself in the depths of the 2010 French winter hurtling towards Montpellier on the TGV, heading for a village I'd never been to, to meet a guy I didn't know, to ask him, in a language not my own, to hand over some of his intellectual property to a complete stranger to take back to Australia. Mission impossible?''

Feletti was armed with two photographs: one of his oysters at Batemans Bay, the second of his latest canola crop in bloom on his Cowra farm. He hoped the Frenchman would see the connection between oysters and a farm where he could grow grapevines to make a wine to go with the oysters. Not so far-fetched, really.


''My heart was in my mouth right until the last moment, when standing in his vineyard, busy with pruning, he finally instructed a worker to cut me some branches,'' Feletti says.

The two men have since become good friends. Feletti imported the vines, which recently emerged from their three years in quarantine. He invited the NSW Minister for Primary Industries and Small Business, Katrina Hodgkinson, to plant the first one. And he's engaged the O'Dea family of Cowra winery Windowrie to make the wine, under the watch of principal Jason O'Dea.

''I needed a hands-on, experienced vigneron to get the first stage of the commercial project under way, and Windowrie readily picked up our enthusiasm and shared our values and priorities,'' Feletti says.

Hodgkinson says: ''I am a strong advocate for the NSW wine and shellfish industries, and I look forward to sampling the fruits of this particular vine with a few of the state's finest oysters in a few years.''

That will be in about three years when, all being well, the vines produce their first crop. Feletti reckons the wine will be sensational with his Clair de Lune and Angasi oysters.

Feletti discovered piquepoul blanc in the tiny Mediterranean oyster village of Bouzigues, on the Languedoc coast. He realised the wine was unknown in Australia and immediately wondered why. There were challenges. ''As an old hardened bloke it almost brought me to tears at several points,'' he says. ''Then later, some twit in AQIS found a reason to phone and say they couldn't proceed to the next step until I went back to the supplier and got yet another certificate. After a mini-saga, I was able to locate his boss, who fixed it in a jiffy.''

Feletti is excited about furthering his crusade to improve Australians' understanding of oysters.

''In France, picpoul de pinet is co-badged with the local oysters,'' he says. ''Oyster farming families intermarry with wine producers. It's ingrained in the culture that wine and food are closely linked.''

Feletti is encouraged by the response from his oyster clients, who include some of the greatest chefs in the country. One wanted to place an order, somewhat jumping the gun.

Where to try picpoul de pinet

Tim Stock of Vinous Imports in Sydney (9572 7285) brings in an excellent example. Chateau Petit Roubie Picpoul de Pinet 2011 ($25-$29) is fresh and lightly fruity on the bouquet with a crisp, racy, high-acid taste: intense, long-lasting and lip-smackingly dry.

Retailers include Vintage Cellars at Ultimo.